Stories about how completely kooky our brains really are

Hysteria or Mysteria?

An interesting confluence of two stories that crossed the Grail news-desk yesterday. Firstly, there's this story about an 'outbreak' at a New York school where 19 people (18 girls, 1 boy) "have developed a sudden-onset disorder with symptoms similar to the movement disorder Tourette’s syndrome."

Several of the girls report that the symptoms seemed to come out of nowhere — one minute they were asleep, the next they had woken and developed uncontrollable movements and vocalizations. Their tics could be dramatic: arms twitching or jolting out to one side, speech chopped up by nonsense utterings, head jerking, eyes blinking. Some girls have also had blackouts and seizures.

Thus far, no physical causes have been found that explain the symptoms, and eight of the girls have been now diagnosed with 'conversion disorder', or mass hysteria. This seems an odd explanation though, given the long period of 'contamination' and lack of social contact between those suffering from the symptoms.

Coincidentally another link that I came across at the same time discussed the 'Dancing Mania' that occurred from the 14th to 17th centuries in Europe:

As early as the year 1374, strange episodes of dancing mania were reported across Europe. No obvious pattern or triggers to the outbreaks, just large gatherings of men and women of all ages,Dancing Mania forming circles and dancing for hours at a time, often until they collapsed with exhaustion...

...Priests, town councils, and local rulers were all alarmed by the dancing mania. The Church blamed the dancing mania on demonic possession and fought it with all the tools at their disposal. Along with frequent sermons directed at the dancers, churches conducted long religious festivals designed to stop the dancers. Although a few priests even resorted to exorcisms, 250px-Die_Wallfahrt_der_Fallsuechtigen_nach_Meulebeeck[1]nothing seemed to keep the dancers down for long. While the priests did what they could, local governments resorted to more direct approaches including having the dancers beaten with sticks and even banning the wearing of round-toed shoes in some places (which made dancing harder).

Although the dancers often burned themselves out after a few months, the relative calm afterward rarely lasted long. As the dancing stopped in one part of Europe, new outbreaks would happen in other parts.

All rather strange, and a testament to how little we still understand about the human mind (or even 'spirit', if that is the case).

Conscious Influence of Quantum Collapse?

A fascinating new study by Dean Radin (and Leena Michel, Karla Galdamez, Paul Wendland, Robert Rickenbach, and Arnaud Delorme) appears to offer supporting evidence for conscious influence of quantum effects. "Consciousness and the double-slit interference pattern: Six experiments " will be published in the June 2012 issue of Physics Essays:

A double-slit optical system was used to test the possible role of consciousness in the collapse of the quantum wavefunction. The ratio of the interference pattern’s double-slit to single-slit spectral power was predicted to decrease when attention was focused towards the double-slit as compared to away. Each test session consisted of 40 counterbalanced attention-towards and attention-away epochs, where each epoch lasted between 15 and 30 seconds. Data contributed by 137 people in six experiments, involving a total of 250 test sessions, indicated that on average the spectral ratio decreased as predicted (z = -4.36, p = 6 x 10-6). Another 250 control sessions conducted without observers present tested hardware, software, and analytical procedures for potential artifacts; none were identified (z = 0.43, p = 0.67).

Variables including temperature, vibration, and signal drift were also tested, and no spurious influences were identified. By contrast, factors associated with consciousness, such as meditation experience, electrocortical markers of focused attention, and psychological factors including openness and absorption significantly correlated in predicted ways with perturbations in the double-slit interference pattern. The results appear to be consistent with a consciousness-related interpretation of the quantum measurement problem.

I'm yet to see the paper, but the interesting parts of the above abstract are the highly significant results per prediction, vs control experiments, as well as what appears to be improved results for subjects with enhanced aspects of focus (e.g. meditators) (Dean notes in the comments that "about half were meditators...They did much better than non-meditators".

Paranthropology 3:1

The latest issue (Vol 3, Number 1) of the free journal Paranthropology ("anthropological approaches to the paranormal") is now available to download. 1In the new release:

  • "The Sublime and the Profane: A Thealogical Account of Psychometric Experiences Within a Sacred Space" - Patricia 'Iolana
  • "Money God Cults in Taiwan: A Paranthropological Approach" - Fabian Graham
  • "Proceeding With Caution: What Went Wrong? The Death and Rebirth of Essential Science" - Charles T. Tart
  • "Transpersonal Anthropology: What is it, and What are the Problems we Face Doing it?" - Charles D. Laughlin
  • "Contemporary Physical Mediumship: Is it Part of a Continuous Tradition" - Jack Hunter
  • "Charles Richet at the Villa Carmen" - Robert McLuhan
  • "Nourished by Dreams, Visions and William James: The Radical Philosophies of Borges and Terence McKenna" - William Rowlandson
  • "An Inner Curriculum Vitae" - Paul Devereux
  • "Communing With the Gods - An Overview" - Charles D. Laughlin
  • "Brazil: Where Cows Might Fly" - Guy Lyon Playfair

And in case you haven't read this great resource before, all of the previous issues remain available to download from the site as well. Don't forget to support the journal with a PayPal donation if you find it interesting/useful...well-deserved and will help ensure publication into the near future.

I Always Expect the ESP Inquisition

Over at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow has posted a story (contributed by Clay Shirky) on the attempted replications of Daryl Bem's controversial 'feeling the future' precognition experiments, which he has titled "ESP proponents claim that ESP skeptics are psychic, and use their powers to suppress ESP" (linking to the original story "Wait, Maybe You Can't Feel the Future"):

Clay sez, "Stuart Ritchie, a psychology doctoral student in Edinburgh, worked with two colleagues to try to replicate the results of a famous recent experiment, claiming people could predict in advance whether they were about to be shown erotic images. When the three failed to find any such evidence for ESP they sent their results out for publication, and the British Psychology Journal, one of the journals to which it was sent, in turn sent the trio's article out for review. When Ritchie et al got the responses back '...there were two reviews, one very positive, urging publication, and one quite negative. This latter review didn’t find any problems in our methodology or writeup itself, but suggested that, since the three of us (Richard Wiseman, Chris French and I) are all skeptical of ESP, we might have unconsciously influenced the results using our own psychic powers.' They are still looking for a place to publish their findings.

Now personally, I don't agree with the reviewer's grounds for rejecting the replication study. Though I've read about the alleged 'experimenter effect' before, and consider it an interesting sideline topic, I think the paper by Ritchie, Wiseman and French deserves to be published regardless. Additionally, they already *do* address the possibility of the experimenter effect in their paper explicitly, in referring to the original experiment set-up by Bem:

When discussing the issue of replication, Bem drew special attention to the role of experimenter effects, arguing that a skeptical experimenter might be more likely to obtain a null effect than one more open to the possibility of psychic ability. To help overcome this potential issue, Bem describes how he specifically designed the study to be run by a computer (thus minimizing the experimenter’s role) and using undergraduate experimenters that were given only informal training. In line with these guidelines, only Replication 1 was carried out by the Principal Investigator - Replication 2 was conducted by the Principal Investigator's research assistants, and Replication 3 was carried out by an undergraduate student as part of a project being supervised by the Principal Investigator.

(Though there could be an argument that Replication 1 did not address the issue raised by Bem, and the further possibility that the research assistants and undergraduates under supervision may have shared the skeptical view of the Principal Investigator due to their working relationship).

What I wanted to address more though is the handling of it at Boing Boing. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but the title seems to me to be designed to say "those whacko ESP proponents, justifying their belief in any way they can". The addition of the 'Psychic Reader' image helps reinforce the woo-woo component. The problem is this: though it has been noted for decades, the 'experimenter effect' has come to the fore in recent years chiefly due to research performed by Richard Wiseman, one of most high-profile *skeptics* in the world. In a joint study with 'psi proponent' Marilyn Schlitz, of the Institute of Noetic Studies, Wiseman found (very tentative) evidence that it might be possible that results may differ depending on the attitude of the researcher. In "Experimenter effects and the remote detection of staring" (full-text PDF), Wiseman and Schlitz discussed the possible explanations for the discrepancy in Wiseman's negative results and Schlitz's positive results:

Finally, it is also possible that both RW and MS used their own psi abilities to create the results he/she desired. This interpretation, if genuine, supports past research which suggests that ‘successful experimenters’ (i.e., those that consistently obtain significant effects in psi studies) outperform ‘unsuccessful’ ones on a variety of psi tasks (see Palmer, 1986 for a review of the literature supporting this notion).

Wiseman and Schlitz have collaborated three times on investigating experimenter effects - the first two resulted in positive evidence, but the most recent experiment failed to replicate their previous findings. Their conclusion at this time regarding the experimenter effect was that "the inconsistent nature of our findings does not allow for a firm acceptance or rejection of either interpretation and the issue will only be resolved by further research".

Now, given that Bem explicitly notes his concern over 'experimenter effect', and further that Richard Wiseman was also one of the co-authors of the failed Bem replication, some might say it's fair enough to raise the experimenter effect as a possible variable, given it's part of Wiseman's own research corpus and that he has actively stated it as a possible cause of failed results. As I said at the beginning, I do think it's worthy of publication all the same. But the Boing Boing title is misleading, and leads to a vast comment thread with a number of boorish and uneducated 'skeptical' comments. Which is a shame, because it's a fascinating field of research no matter what the final outcome is.

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SciAm on Lucid Dreaming

Scientific American have published a feature today on the latest research into lucid dreaming, and in particular some of the benefits that may be gained from learning this long-neglected human ability:

Until recently, most experts thought of lucid dreaming as a curiosity—a fun way to act out wishful thinking about flying or meeting celebrities. But recent research has uncovered practical uses for lucid dreams. Chronic nightmare sufferers often find their only source of relief is learning how to take control of their dreams. Lucid Dreaming Book CoverA study in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics in October 2006 found that those who learned how to increase their frequency of lucid dreams reported fewer awful dreams afterward, although the exact mechanism underlying the relief is unclear. Perhaps becoming aware during a bad dream allows sufferers to distance themselves emotionally from the dream’s content. Some people may even become so adept at lucid dreaming that they are able to keep themselves from imagining frightening disaster scenarios while they are asleep.

...Beyond therapeutic applications, lucid dreaming may also facilitate the learning of complicated movement sequences. In dreams, we are all capable of unusual actions. We can fly, walk through walls or make objects disappear. According to sports psychologist Daniel Erlacher of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, athletes can internalize complex motor sequences, such as those needed in the high jump, more quickly after targeted lucid-dream training.

Regular dreams have been shown to be involved in problem solving, so some researchers have asked if lucid dreams could be useful in focusing the dreamer’s mind. A small study last year at Liverpool John Moores University in England suggests that lucid dreams are good for creative endeavors such as inventing metaphors but not for more rational exercises such as solving brainteasers. The lucid dreamers in the study were instructed to summon a “guru” figure, a wise character to serve as a kind of guide. Indeed, some of the subjects found their dream characters to be surprisingly helpful.

For more on this topic, make sure you grab a copy of Paul and Charla Devereux's book Lucid Dreaming: Accessing Your Inner Virtual Realities (Amazon US or Amazon UK), released by Daily Grail Publishing earlier this year, which covers these topics and also fills you in on how you can take control of your dreams.

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Communing with the Gods

Today I'm proud to announce another new book release from Daily Grail Publishing: Communing with the Gods: Consciousness, Culture and the Dreaming Brain, by Charles D. Laughlin, Ph.D. (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK):

Book Cover for Communing with the Gods

Communing with the Gods presents the most comprehensive account of culture and dreaming available in the anthropology of dreaming, and is written by an anthropologist who is also trained in neuroscience, and who is himself a lucid dreamer and Tibetan Tantric dream yoga practitioner. The book examines the place of dreaming in the experience of peoples from diverse cultures and historical backgrounds. Communing with the Gods touches on shamanism and anthropological theories of dreaming, 'paranormal dreams', lucid dreaming, and what we know about how the brain produces dreams and why.

A comprehensive theory of brain, culture and dreaming is presented that explains the neurobiological functions of sleep and dreaming, the evolution of dreaming, the universality of, and cultural variation in dream elements, and the role of dreaming as a system of intra-psychic communication. This theory is then applied to an examination of dreaming in modern society. The book concludes by discussing how modern dream-work may ameliorate wide-spread alienation, spiritual exhaustion and despair in modern society.

I want to be clear that this is an extremely scholarly work on the neuroanthropology of dreaming - it is not a 'pop read' in any sense. But that is what is exciting about this book: Charles Laughlin is a very well-respected academic with a long history of research into this topic, and in this book - aimed at others in the fields of anthropology, neurobiology and dream research - he deals calmly and rationally with the oft-neglected issues of transpersonal and paranormal dreaming, not to mention the more general fact that modern Western cultures largely ignore dreams, to their detriment, and that it is high time we began to reconnect with this aspect of our lives.

For those who are interested in exploring these topics further, you can use the following links to purchase a copy:

Also, for those admiring the gorgeous cover artwork: it's courtesy of our good friend, visionary artist Adam Scott Miller.

Authors of the Impossible and Esalen

Film-maker Scott Hulan Jones has posted a 13-minute video 'pitch piece' for his documentary Authors of the Impossible, based on the book of the same name by Jeff Kripal. The video is "still in very rough form, but it will give you an idea of the tone and subject matter of the film". It does so by starting off with a number of contemporary paranormal stories and the effect they had upon the individuals involved:

Remember too that I posted an excerpt from the book here on TDG late last year, "Jacques Vallee, Author of the Impossible". Authors of the Impossible (the book) is available to buy from Amazon US and UK.

Incidentally, Scott Hulan Jones is also working on a documentary about the mecca of human potential studies, the Esalen Institute (again, based on a book by Jeff Kripal), and he's recently posted the trailer for that as well:

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Paranthropology 2:4

The sixth issue (2:4) of the free journal Paranthropology ("anthropological approaches to the paranormal") is now available to download. In the new release:

  • "The Anthropology of the Possible: The Anthropologist at Sceptical Enquirer" - Lee Wilson
  • "Dreams and Telepathic Communication" - David E. Young
  • "Believing the Malagasy: Towards a Methodology for Studying the Paranormal Among Other Normal Things" - Christel Mattheeuws
  • "Neo-Shamanism, Psi, and Their Relationship With Transpersonal Psychology" - Mark A. Schroll
  • "Mushroom (and Masalai) Madness in Melanesia: Drug Traditions and Cultural Change in Highland Societies in Papua New Guinea" - Henry Dosedla
  • "Crop Circles as Psychoid Manifestation: Borrowing Jung's Analysis of UFOs to Approach the Phenomenon of the Crop Circle" - William Rowlandson
  • "Eileen Garrett's Haitian Diary" - Eileen J. Garrett
  • "What's Wrong With Parapharmanthropology (Apart from the Name)?" - David Luke

And in case you haven't read this great resource before, all of the previous issues remain available to download from the site as well. Don't forget to support the journal with a PayPal donation if you find it interesting/useful...these things don't throw themselves together.

Stephen LaBerge on Lucid Dreaming

Here's a nice little interview with pioneering researcher in the field of lucid dreaming, Stephen LaBerge, discussing some of the basics of this bizarre phenomenon:

LaBerge's research is just one of many topics discussed in Paul and Charla Devereux's wonderbul book Lucid Dreaming: Accessing Your Inner Virtual Realities (Amazon US or Amazon UK), released earlier this year by Daily Grail Publishing. The book recently received a glowing review from Ryan Hurd at the Dream Studies website - make sure you pick yourself up a copy, and begin taking control of the 'lost' third of your life.

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When the Old Hag Kills...

Here's a fascinating article on the power of belief, framed in cultural beliefs about the night-mare/'old hag' experienced during episodes of sleep paralysis:

They died in their sleep one by one, thousands of miles from home. Their median age was 33. All but one - 116 of the 117 - were healthy men. Immigrants from southeast Asia, you could count the time most had spent on American soil in just months. At the peak of the deaths in the early 1980s, the death rate from this mysterious problem among the Hmong ethnic group was equivalent to the top five natural causes of death for other American men in their age group.

Something was killing Hmong men in their sleep, and no one could figure out what it was. There was no obvious cause of death. None of them had been sick, physically. The men weren't clustered all that tightly, geographically speaking. They were united by dislocation from Laos and a shared culture, but little else. Even House would have been stumped...

Twenty-five years later, Shelley Adler's new book pieces together what happened, drawing on interviews with the Hmong population and analyzing the extant scientific literature. Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind Body Connection is a mind-bending exploration of how what you believe interacts with how your body works. Adler, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, comes to a stunning conclusion: In a sense, the Hmong were killed by their beliefs in the spirit world, even if the mechanism of their deaths was likely an obscure genetic cardiac arrhythmia that is prevalent in southeast Asia.

In short, after reviewing all the evidence, Adler "makes the provocative claim that the Laotian immigrants of the 1980s were in some sense killed by their powerful cultural belief in night spirits."

You can pick up a copy of Sleep Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection at Amazon US or Amazon UK.

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